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Why Lebanon’s Sunnis will stay calm as Syria’s Sunnis wage war

Lebanese Sunnis lack the military organization of their Shiite rivals and have a tradition of nonviolence.

A blackened patch of fire-scorched earth along a Bekaa Valley highway marks the scene of a recent roadside bomb, Lebanese Sunnis’ latest violent outburst toward the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

The ambush near Majdal Anjar, which reportedly killed one suspected Hezbollah member and wounded three others, was the fourth since early June to target vehicles believed to contain Hezbollah militants in the Bekaa. Along with a recent rocket strike and car bombing, both against the Shiite-populated southern suburbs of Beirut, the attack illustrates how Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria‘s bloody civil war on the side of the regime has further enraged Sunnis here, who already resent the military and political power wielded by the Shiite group.

“Frustration is growing more and more. The Sunni street is weak and we are the oppressed sect,” says Ramzi Dayshoum, an official with Muslims Without Borders, an Islamic charity, speaking in his office in the Bekaa town of Bar Elias. “We are an enemy of Hezbollah today and this will cause a big explosion in the country.”

But while outbreaks of further violence are inevitable, a descent into all-out civil war similar to the conflict roiling Syria or the one that blighted Lebanon between 1975 and 1990 is unlikely. Beyond a few cells of radical militants, Lebanese Sunnis are unorganized militarily, and stand little chance in a head-on battle against Hezbollah. And the mainstream moderate leadership, represented by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri‘s Future Movement, has rejected violence as a solution.

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Still, expressions of bitterness and frustration toward Hezbollah are easy to hear in Sunni areas of Lebanon, whether in the coastal cities of Beirut, Tripoli and Sidon or the rural towns of the Bekaa Valley.

Sunni demotion

Once the dominant Islamic sect in Lebanon, over the past two decades the Sunni community has been gradually overshadowed by the political and financial empowerment of the Shiites, led by the powerful Hezbollah.

Sunnis point to a series of setbacks over the past decade that has left the community weakened and disenfranchised, including the assassination in 2005 of Rafik Hariri, a charismatic billionaire businessman and former Lebanese prime minister who was a figurehead for Lebanese Sunnis. In 2011, a tribunal in The Netherlands indicted four members of Hezbollah on charges of involvement in Hariri’s death.

In May 2008, Hezbollah and its allies briefly took control of mainly Sunni west Beirut in an armed response to the then Western-backed government’s decision to shut down the Shiite group’s private telecommunications network. And in January 2011, Hezbollah and its parliamentary allies forced the collapse of the government headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of Rafik – an act that Hariri’s supporters denounced as a “coup.”

The latest Sunni gripe is Hezbollah’s military role in Syria. In early June, Hezbollah retook the rebel-held town of Qusayr in the Homs province and today stands poised along with the Syrian army to seize Homs itself, Syria’s third largest city, from the mainly Sunni armed opposition.

Many Sunnis complain that Hezbollah has infiltrated the apparatus of the Lebanese state, dominating the government and wielding influence over the Lebanese army, deepening their sense of marginalization and victimization.

“All the sensitive positions in government are for the Shiites or those that support them,” says Abu Yussef, a Salafist cleric from the town of Naameh, nine miles south of Beirut.

“If I have a gun to protect my home, I am considered a terrorist and I go to prison,” the thickly bearded cleric says. “But if I say that I am ‘resistance’ [e.g., a Hezbollah-affiliated anti-Israel fighter] they will never put another foot in my house again.”

A tradition of nonviolence

Unlike other leading sects in Lebanon, the Sunni community has little tradition of militancy or rebelliousness. As minorities in a predominantly Sunni region, the Maronites, Shiites and Druze historically sought refuge in the rugged mountains of Lebanon and fought their opponents with a ferocity rooted in the knowledge that defeat could spell annihilation.

Meanwhile, the Sunnis lived mainly in the coastal cities of Beirut, Tripoli and Sidon, prospering as merchants under the dominion of their fellow Sunni Ottomans. Sunni leaders in Lebanon generally have been drawn from a clique of powerful city-dwelling families – traders and landowners who amassed wealth and property under Ottoman rule and formed the inaugural Sunni political class after the Lebanese state was founded in 1920.

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But the relatively colorless, besuited Lebanese merchants lacked the charisma of other Sunni leaders in the region who caught the eye and the imagination of Lebanese Sunnis, such as Gamal Abdel-Nasser of Egypt, who in the 1950s launched a wave of anti-colonial Arab nationalism that shaped the region’s politics for two decades. Then there was Yasser Arafat, the former Palestinian leader, and at other times Saddam Hussein of Iraq and even Muammar Qaddafi of Libya.

In the early 1990s, Sunni Rafik Hariri became prime minister, launching a sweeping reconstruction program to repair the damage of the civil war and dominating the political landscape of that decade. But he rejected the role of being a specifically Sunni leader.

“When Rafik Hariri ruled, the Sunnis wanted him to be their leader, but he always said that he was a leader of all Lebanese not just the Sunnis,” says Mohammed Salam, a veteran Lebanese journalist, editor of the Associated News Agency, and a former official in the Future Movement.

It is a line to which the Future Movement’s current leadership continues to adhere, arguing a case for peace and secular co-existence.

“The mainstream [Sunni] leadership is systematically saying that we will never take the road of violence or weapons no matter what. We will not abandon our strategic project – state building and the democratic process,” says Hani Hammoud, a senior advisor to Saad Hariri. “The only way we will win is as Lebanese, not Sunnis. We reject being reduced to the lowest common denominator. We are not just Sunnis, we are Lebanese.”

Looking for a hero

The Future Movement insists that it still retains the support of the majority of Sunnis in Lebanon. While the Future Movement would probably fair well at the polls due to the absence of credible nationwide alternatives, its detractors say the Movement is out of step with the Sunni community’s desire for a leader who will address their grievances and champion their interests. Dayshoum of Muslims Without Borders says that the Future Movement has grown weaker since May 2008, when it was unable to thwart Hezbollah’s take-over of west Beirut.

“It is so weak now that most who joined it have either become more Islamist or are staying at home doing nothing,” he says.

Furthermore, Saad Hariri has lived outside Lebanon for more than two years (because of death threats, according to his aides), fostering a vacuum that has the potential to be filled by more militant-minded leaders or grant space to radical extremists to pursue their own anti-Hezbollah agenda.

The Abdullah al-Azzam Brigades, a Sunni Al-Qaeda-linked faction that has a presence in Lebanon, claimed responsibility for the Majdal Anjar roadside bomb ambush two weeks ago and has vowed to the turn the Bekaa Valley into a “river of blood” unless Hezbollah withdraws its forces from Syria.

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Sheikh Ahmad Assir, a Salafist cleric living on the edge of Sidon who emerged from obscurity two years ago, caught the imagination of many Sunnis with his bold public criticism of Hezbollah and its leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. But he was unable to win over a broad swathe of the Sunni community. His tactics – sit-ins blocking major roads in Sidon and feuds with the Lebanese army and Hezbollah supporters – alienated some Sidon residents who resented his disruptive behaviour. Sheikh Assir and his supporters were eventually crushed in a 24-hour battle with Lebanese troops last month and the firebrand cleric has since gone into hiding.

Still, the conflict in Syria is spurring on new grassroots Sunni militant leaders that could yet inspire some Lebanese Sunnis to take action against Hezbollah, even if the bulk of the community remains disinclined to directly tackle the powerful Shiite group.

“We don’t have a [communal] leader and with this tsunami coming from Syria, a Sunni from Syria could rally the Sunnis here and they will follow him like they once did with [Palestinian leader] Arafat,” says Salam, the veteran Lebanese journalist. “It’s physics – nature abhors a vacuum.”